There is a wide variety of gay male comics to choose from these days: erotica, humor, sometimes a combination of the two, and an increasing selection of fantasy- and genre-based titles, not to mention idiosyncratic offerings like the "Disco Grindcore" romantic comedy of Ed Luce’s Wuvable Oaf series. Inhabiting its own little niche is the quiet, compelling realist drama of Steve MacIsaac’s Shirtlifter series, which combines literary qualities with explicit sexual content, and examines how contemporary gay men live their lives.
MacIsaac debuted Shirtlifter in 2006, after winning the Prism Queer Press grant. He went on to publish the second issue with the help of a Xeric grant in 2007. With the third issue released in 2008, he began serializing his graphic novel Unpacking, the concluding chapters of which make up the bulk of this fifth issue. (In the interest of full disclosure, Steve and I are friends and colleagues; he has contributed work to several recent queer comics anthologies I have edited.)
Set in Vancouver, Unpacking tells the story of a late-thirties graphic designer named Matt, who makes up in muscle mass what he lacks in emotional availability. In the aftermath of his breakup with Michel, his partner of eight years, Matt is stuck in neutral, unable to put the physical or emotional aspects of his life in order. With his muscular physique, he has no trouble finding men online to hook up with, but he steadfastly refuses anything more than one-night stands. Eventually he hooks up with an equally hunky Aussie named Connor, a man with a wife and children back home. Against his better judgment, Matt begins to see Connor for more than just booty calls. Unfortunately, in addition to Connor’s “family matters,” he has a considerable number of issues tied up with his attraction for men, and that, combined with Matt’s extreme commitment-phobia, makes for a tumultuous and painful relationship from the start—especially when these two (quite unwillingly) fall for each other. As Michael’s good friend Kris puts it: “there is no planet in the universe where this ends well.”
Through Matt's story, MacIsaac is able to further explore and discuss some of the broader themes of his work: gay male identity and sexuality, masculinity, and the question of gay assimilation into the mainstream. Matt, like many of MacIsaac's protagonists, struggles with emotional isolation—even during sex, supposedly that most intimate of encounters between people. In fact, MacIsaac often employs sexual situations to illuminate the emotional states of his characters. At one point, Matt, alone in his apartment and upset that Connor isn't returning his texts, strips and begins to masturbate to online porn. But the deafening silence from Connor quickly sours the mood, leaving Matt feeling all the more alone and bewildered, unable to distract himself. It’s a powerful, resonant sequence, explicit for completely different reasons than the usual X-rated comic fare.
Matt is a trying hero: angry and prone to self-pity, resentful even of his dearest friends' happiness. “You’re no fun sometimes,” his friend Kris tells him. “I’m no fun most times,” says Matt. But he possesses a certain bruising honesty and directness. When he tells Kris’s husband Chris of his jealousy over their seemingly perfect marriage, they discuss the issue and move on, their friendship intact. And Matt's steadfast refusal to capitulate to Connor's discomfort with appearing gay in public is admirable.
MacIsaac fleshes out Matt's friends and acquaintances—in particular his ex-husband Michel and his business partner Kumiko—with skillfully wrought dialogue and everyday situations, often laced with humor. Matt and his friends razz each other the way friends do in real life. When he and Kumiko go shopping for music, she picks out the new Tegan and Sara. Matt: “Wow. You’re not a stereotype. Kumiko: “So says the gay man as he flips through house twelve-inches.”
MacIsaac has a somewhat anthropological drawing style that matches his omniscient narrative sense: reserved and realistic. It’s not icily detached in the Clowesian sense; there’s more of a brooding watchfulness that illuminates his subject matter quite well. He is fond of establishing shots, rendering the cityscapes, apartments, and commercial businesses of Vancouver with a documentarian's precision. He handles dialogue-heavy sequences with a deft hand, placing the word balloons judiciously (an under-appreciated skill, says I); and does especially well with silent narratives: the many pages devoted to Matt’s tortured texting-and-waiting for the infuriatingly silent Connor are particularly well-paced and atmospheric.
In the past few issues of Shirtlifter, MacIsaac has featured short back-up stories by guest cartoonists like Justin Hall, Fuzzbelly, and a talented British artist named Ilya. This issue’s featured artists are the Lambda Award-winning Jon Macy and Toronto's rising star, Eric Kostiuk Williams. Macy’s piece is a straightforward, sweet-natured first-person narrative from a tall man who describes his enjoyment of relationships with men much shorter than himself ("one bigger, one smaller, and the gravitational pull of opposites"), while Williams’ offers up a wordless narrative, featuring his signature surreal, swirling, fragmented imagery, depicting the after-effects of a breakup. Both stories—meditations on the sensory, physical sensations of romantic relationships—fit perfectly into MacIsaac’s thematic purview.
Though MacIsaac enjoys a devoted and enthusiastic readership–the spring Kickstarter campaign he launched to finance issue Five met its initial goal within 28 hours–Shirtlifter deserves a wider audience. Many gay men in particular should relish seeing so many of their fears, desires and concerns accurately reflected in these stories and vignettes. MacIsaac offers up not pat gay role models, thank goodness, but complex characters you’d swear you know in real life. Maybe even in a mirror.